Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy

THE SHOW “Great Performances — Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy”

WHEN | WHERE Tuesday night at 9:30 on WNET/13

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Remember how outrageous it felt in “Spamalot,” when Sir Robin sang, “In any great adventure, if you don’t want to lose … you won’t succeed on Broadway if you don’t have any Jews?” Well, no matter how one feels about sweeping cultural generalizations, Eric Idle’s funny lyric turns out to be amazingly true about musicals.

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Or so says Michael Kantor’s 90-minute documentary about Jewish influence on the most beloved musical theater. Using interviews, archival clips and musical examples, narrator Joel Grey traces one of America’s greatest contributions to world culture to a big handful of Jewish songwriters — including Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, the Gershwins, Lorenz Hart, Richard Rodgers, Kurt Weill, Jule Styne and Jerry Herman.

Except for the work of Cole Porter, the formative 50 years of the so-called “golden age” of American musicals and popular music can be traced to the Yiddish sounds and social conscience of Jewish immigrants and children of immigrants from the Lower East Side at the turn of the 20th century.

Jamie Bernstein, daughter of Leonard, calls them “misfits, outsiders overcoming obstacles in melodies from Jewish prayers.” These were Jews writing for non-Jewish audiences, and the hunger to assimilate was disguised — for example, as the half-black woman in “Show Boat,” music by Kern, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein (raised Episcopalian but the grandson of a German-Jewish impresario).

Berlin, who came through Ellis Island at 5 years old and remembered standing there “in our Jew clothes,” went on to write “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade.” It wasn’t until “Fiddler on the Roof” in 1964, then “Cabaret” two years later, that Broadway told Jewish stories. Director Hal Prince recalls the “Fiddler” backers’ audition, when he had to insist the show was “going to be fun, not just pogroms and exile.”

MY SAY Kantor makes his fascinating case with smart historians, marvelous archival footage and pithy musical examples. We don’t need to know the direct line from the Gershwins’ “Ain’t Necessarily So” to Torah liturgy to appreciate the work. But it will be hard to hear it again without appreciating the connections.